When Odessa Shannon had a conversation a few years ago with a friend who was knowledgeable about Montgomery County's history, she was surprised to discover that the friend had never heard of several African Americans who have contributed significantly to the county's development.
Shannon, who is the director of the county's Office of Human Rights, said she was even more appalled when her friend did not recognize the name of Edith Throckmorton, who served as a president of the Montgomery County NAACP during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s.
"When she was president of the NAACP, people could call her for help in the middle of the night, and she was known to show up at the police station with curlers in her hair to check on someone," Shannon said. "I couldn't believe that African Americans had forgotten her."
Shannon's concern grew to include human and civil rights advocates of all races who had never been recognized for the roles they played in helping to shape present-day Montgomery County. So she came up with the idea of creating a county Human Rights Hall of Fame.
"I felt too much history was being lost of African Americans, whites, Hispanics and everybody who had contributed and struggled so hard to make Montgomery County what it is now. The hall of fame came to mind as a way to recognize them," Shannon said. "There are still so many unsung heroes out there who've done things, and I want to keep hearing their stories."
The Human Rights Commission's hall of fame is in its third year. The names of more than 40 residents are listed as inductees on a statue in the lobby of the County Executive Office Building in Rockville. County residents nominated the inductees, and an independent panel of judges selected the winners.
This year, six residents were inducted. These are their stories.
Mary Y. Betters
A restaurant's refusal to serve Mary Y. Betters and her two small daughters in the late 1950s was the catalyst for the long civil rights career she carved out for herself in Montgomery County.
The incident happened shortly after Betters and her husband, a dentist, left Chicago for the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Rockville. Betters and her daughters had watched with anticipation the construction of a restaurant on Rockville Pike, but when it opened, they were turned away because of their race.
"My daughters cried because they wanted to eat there; but I didn't cry," Betters said. "I was fighting mad. I shared my experiences with the NAACP and filed a report. A few months later, they asked me to run for president. . . . I figured, if you're going to complain, you should be willing to do the work for the organization."
Betters, of Silver Spring, was the local NAACP president from 1959 to 1964, and today at age 74 she continues to serve on the organization's Criminal Justice Committee, which investigates allegations of police misconduct.
During Betters's years as NAACP president, a cross was burned in her yard, and Molotov cocktails were tossed into the windows of the home her family had just purchased as the first African Americans on Connecticut Avenue near Randolph Road.
"Injustice never ends, so I had to fight and keep fighting. I had two children, and I didn't want them to have these kinds of experiences," Betters said.
Betters went on to lead many pickets and sit-ins of local businesses and public establishments in the metropolitan area that did not admit or serve African Americans. Her picketing list included Glen Echo Park and the Hecht Co. and Woodward & Lothrop department stores. Her tireless efforts in tackling discrimination in public places are said to have contributed greatly to the passage of the county's public accommodations laws in the mid-1960s. In addition, Betters was a founding member of the Suburban Maryland Fair Housing Council, established in 1962.
Florence Orbach, who has known Betters since they started working with the NAACP in the 1950s, described Betters as a dedicated activist who has never tired of working for human and civil rights causes.
"Mary has always stood for justice," Orbach said. "She's polite, but she gets her point across and doesn't give up. Where there's injustice, Mary will be there to go to the authorities to put things right."
Betters said she appreciated being inducted into the Human Rights Hall of Fame, but the most important aspect of the honor was that her family witnessed the recognition of her work.
"It was important that my children and grandchildren could see that I'd done things for all minorities and hopefully this will motivate them to do the same thing," Betters said.
When Blanca Kling was a little girl growing up in Bolivia, she would often take items from her home to give to less fortunate neighbors. Her father was a general in the military, and she would take family members' clothes and grocery items from her house and give them to those who needed them.
"Once my mom complimented a neighbor on her blouse, and the lady said: 'No, it is yours. Blanca gave it to me.' And I'd get in trouble with my parents," Kling said. "I'd have people waiting for things. I played with some poorer kids three blocks from my house, and I'd hear what was needed and I'd get it for them."
Kling's parents finally resorted to putting locks on the refrigerator and cabinets, but she found ways to open them. "My parents would buy cooking stuff, and it would be gone in a few days. They knew it was me," Kling said. "When I was 11, for six months I invited a homeless man for lunch everyday at 2. I'd tell my grandmom, 'He's coming, so we have to feed him.' My parents finally gave up trying to stop me from helping the poor."
Kling is now 51, and she has continued to help those in need. She always has clothes and other items in her car trunk to give to people she comes across. In 1980, a decade after moving to the county, Kling joined the county police department as an aide and interpreter. She was promoted to victims services coordinator -- going to hospitals, residences and crime scenes as a translator when needed. As more Spanish speakers moved into Montgomery County in the 1980s, Kling began volunteering almost daily at community centers to connect new immigrants with social services.
"I gave them information and advocated for them to get services like an apartment or Social Security, and I'd take them in my car to the offices where they needed to go," Kling recalled. "When lead was found in an apartment building in Silver Spring, I worked with the lawyers and health department to get the information to each household," she said.
The Catholic churches in the area have benefited greatly from Kling's activities. She recently became the first Hispanic and female to chair St. Camillus Church's Parish Council, and works diligently with church-sponsored immigration programs in the county.
"She's always available to help, especially with new people who come here, and sometimes she's here every day," said Sister Carmen Banegas, coordinator of the Spanish Catholic Center. "In the mid-1980s when we were overworked trying to document immigrants before the amnesty ran out, she worked tirelessly for us, always smiling, even though we couldn't pay," Banegas said.
Kling, who moved from Montgomery County to Beltsville, has also worked for two decades with the U.S. Census Bureau's Undercounted Committee, gaining the trust of undocumented immigrants to make sure they were counted. She was instrumental in getting census forms changed to accommodate people who have multiple families living in a single dwelling. The county police department approved and funded Kling's latest project to help Hispanic residents. She now hosts a monthly radio program on local station 1540 AM, discussing topics such as how the police department works, pedestrian street laws, domestic violence and gangs.
"I love doing these things, and I'll do them until the day I die," Kling said.
The Rev. James G. Macdonell, known internationally for his human rights work, actually began his professional career in Chicago as the No. 2 artist for the Buck Rogers comic strip.
Macdonell's degree was in social work, and he soon began volunteering in Chicago's neighborhood centers to work with low-income children. In 1958 he became an ordained minister and moved to Montgomery County in 1960, founding St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville and making the area the headquarters for his strong advocacy on human rights issues.
"I had a great congregation that put up with my activist work and wanted me to be involved in the community," said Macdonell, 72, of Bethesda. "You can only do this if the congregation supports you and if you have a wonderfully nutty wife like I do who puts up with me."
In 1963, Macdonell participated in the historic March on Washington, and in 1965 he marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest segregation in Selma, Ala. Although he was advised against it, in 1963 he and two other activists lived with African American families in Canton, Miss., to help register black voters.
"That was the scariest experience of my life," Macdonell said. "We were harassed a lot, and the sheriff warned us that we were on our own if we got caught."
Locally, housing discrimination consumed a lot of Macdonell's time over the years. In the mid-1960s, he served on the board of the Suburban Maryland Fair Housing Council, and in 1982 he founded the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington (now the Equal Rights Center). Macdonell was also successful in getting 100 new, low-cost homes and apartments built in the predominantly African American Scotland community.
"These were the first low-income housing units built in Montgomery County. We got the first low-income housing grant from HUD and built 75 rentals and 25 homes for ownership," Macdonell said.
Macdonell's long list of accomplishments also includes establishing the Karma House 30 years ago to provide services to young boys, mediating pay raises for minority workers at Suburban Hospital as an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission representative, and managing an integrated coffeehouse for young people during segregation.
"He gives enormous amounts of his time to this work, and nobody I know works harder in support of causes," said Joe Beaman, a former ambassador to New Zealand. "We've worked together on issues in Northern Ireland, and I love the way he has the ability of getting people energized. This has a multiplier effect on not just what he does but what he can get others to do."
In 2002, Macdonell was named chairman of the Presbyterian Committee for Northern Ireland, a group that seeks peaceful solutions to the conflict there. Twice a year he takes a group of Protestant and Catholic officials to Ireland to meet with its top church officials and opposition leaders. Macdonell said his international work has not taken his focus away from issues at home and the work that needs to be done here.
"Civil rights is not a priority in this conservative environment, so the battles are not over," he said.
Helping people in need and fighting for racial harmony have always been top priorities for 89-year-old Inez McAbee. Born and raised on a farm in Damascus, McAbee has spent most of her adult life speaking out against injustice and being a strong advocate for integration throughout the county.
McAbee was the first African American to serve on the Laytonsville Elementary School PTA after integration, she ran the Damascus Meals on Wheels program and was instrumental in bringing about a smooth integration of the area's Methodist churches.
"I've always served on many committees, and during segregation I'd let the members and boards know when I thought we [African Americans] hadn't been treated fairly," said McAbee, who worked for years as a nurse's aide. "I brought to their attention things they pretended they didn't know, and I helped to get whites to understand that we were smarter than they thought we were."
Many of McAbee's activities during the civil rights era, such as voter registration drives, resulted in threatening calls in the middle of the night. McAbee said to keep from being intimidated, all she had to do was remember the days when she had to walk four miles to school each day, even though there was a school for whites three blocks from her house.
"Every time I thought of those four miles, I'd work on an issue even harder. Yes siree. It makes you mad when a school is three blocks away and you can't go in the door," McAbee said. "Those kinds of experiences motivated me to be an activist. When I was 6 or 7, I didn't like that we didn't have books like the whites. I said if I got older I'd do something about it, and I did."
When integration came to Damascus, McAbee joined the PTA and visited the schools to make sure that the black students received the materials they needed as well as tutors. The Rev. Walter Edmonds, a local pastor who worked with McAbee when she was pushing for integration of the Methodist churches in Damascus, described her as the matriarch of the area's transition from segregation to integration.
"She's played a key role in this community and has been the backbone of the African American experience in this town as we went from a closed community to an open one," Edmonds said. "She's the mother behind the churches [Methodist] working together and having mutual projects today."
Margit Meissner has just about seen and done it all. The 82-year-old is a Holocaust survivor, worked as an interpreter during World War II, wrote scripts from Czechoslovakian novels for Hollywood studios, studied dress design in Paris and worked in the New York fashion industry.
In addition to having lived all over the world, Meissner also worked as a schoolteacher in Argentina, developed a national employment program for disabled high school graduates, founded a countywide program for parents of disabled children and, last year, published her autobiography, "Margit's Story."
She developed a passion for disabled causes when she was teaching in Argentina and discovered that her 6-year-old daughter had a learning disability.
"My daughter is the initial reason I focused on it [disability], but my commitment became much bigger after that," Meissner said. "The stigma people attach to people with disabilities is probably their worst handicap, and I have always been eager to change that so people will look at the individual first and then the disability. That has been my mantra and what motivates me."
Meissner, who lives in Bethesda, said she is also motivated to fight for the rights of the disabled and others because of the discrimination and persecution she experienced firsthand, growing up in Europe during the Holocaust. Meissner escaped what was then Czechoslovakia for France in 1938 when she was 16 years old. Later, when the Germans defeated the French, Meissner was smuggled out of France and came to New York in 1941.
"Because I am a survivor and used my wits and luck to survive, I believe that individuals can make a difference," she said.
After starting a teaching program for unwed mothers in New York and traveling across the world with her military careerist husband, Meissner and her family moved to Montgomery County in 1970.
"I worked through the PTA, and the first thing I did was to start a special needs committee for parents of learning disabled children at my daughter's school," she said.
Meissner eventually landed a position as a county coordinator for the disabled, helping county officials implement the Americans With Disabilities Act and develop programs for gifted students with learning disabilities.
"She is an extremely astute person when it comes to children's needs, and she works to plug in the things that are missing in their lives in terms of coordinating and connecting them with resources and services they need and don't know about," said Enid Gershen, director of programming for the Foundation for Health Education in Montgomery County.
In 1986, Meissner established the Transition Center Inc. (TransCen), which helps disabled highs school students find employment when they graduate. Meissner serves on TransCen's board.
"I'm proud of the work I've done over the years, and I'm glad to be recognized. I was the only inductee recognized for working with the disabled, and this has meant a lot to me," Meissner said.
Ask about Leroy Warren, and after those who know him offer up a long list of his accomplishments as an activist, they will probably wish you lots of luck if you are going up against him on an issue.
"He's a doer who holds everybody accountable for their actions, whether it's the police, any county, city or federal agency, the school system, and he hasn't excused African Americans for things they do either," said Roscoe Nix, former county NAACP president and school board member.
"It's all about justice for him, and he is a phenomenal leader and advocate for human and social justice," said Linda Plummer, who served as NAACP president from 1994 to 2002. "He never considers how his lifestyle will be affected by the stands he takes on issues on Capitol Hill, in the State House or wherever."
Warren, 59, of Silver Spring, became a civil rights activist at the age of 14 in Linden, Tex., when he joined marchers to protest the poor condition of African American schools there. He later protested segregated schools in Illinois. Warren's activism continued when he moved to Montgomery County in 1971.
"I came here and there were battles to fight here, but my attitude is you can't let racism get you down because it's out there. The question is how do we beat it," Warren said. "The problem was many African Americans were born here and were comfortable with things. The place was dead. You had an NAACP, but no fighting was going on. People were having rap sessions, just talking."
Warren, a retired economic analyst with the U.S. Postal Service, soon became involved and took leadership roles on federal, state and local issues ranging from school suspensions of minorities and employment discrimination to labor and criminal justice concerns. He also fought to get African Americans appointed as federal judges and to lower the number of minorities involved in random traffic stops in the county.
The local NAACP "won a consent decree from the Justice Department that required the county to submit data for five years on the race and background of people stopped in traffic stops," he said.
Warren, who serves on the NAACP's national board, also wrote a brochure and script for a video last year on what a person should do when stopped by the police. A national insurance company funded the project and produced copies of both for distribution in high schools nationwide.
"Warren does things because he believes in them and asks for nothing in return. He's a rare individual who takes positions even if he has to do so solo, like telling black parents they need to be accountable for what their kids do or don't do in school," Nix said.